Just ten days after the passage of a bill that will allow Connecticut farm wineries to sell their wines at farmer’s markets around the state, I caught up with one of the Connecticut winemakers instrumental in the creation of this bill, Keith Bishop. In addition to being a staunch advocate of our state’s wineries, this month’s Connecticut Corker is, himself, a winemaker, producing award-winning wines from apples, peaches, raspberries, pears, strawberries and blueberries, all grown on his farm at Bishop’s Orchards. Mr. Bishop’s most recent awards include medals for 13 of his wines entered into the 18th Annual Amenti del Vino International Wine Competition, including a Gold Medal for his Semi-Sweet Hard Cider and a much-coveted Double Gold Medal for Strawberry Delight.
If there is one misconception that fruit winemaker, Keith Bishop, could correct, it is that not all fruit wines are overly sweet. “(Fruit wines) can be sweet, but they don’t have to be, and they definitely all aren’t.” Gone are the days of the early Boone’s Farm Apple Wine, which might be remembered by some baby boomers out there as that cloyingly sweet, mildly alcoholic fruit juice. Fruit wines can be just as elegant as grape wines and can be paired with an entire panoply of foods. When it comes to fruit wines, Mr. Bishop should know. It is the only kind of wine he makes and he is quite successful at it.
The Bishop family, one of the founding families of Guilford in 1639, began this farm in 1871 and six generations have worked the farm throughout the years. Bishop’s Orchards has grown from a roadside farm stand in 1910 to the bustling market it is today, selling, among other things, meat, dairy, baked goods, wine, and fruits and vegetables, many of which have been grown on their own 320 acres of farmland. Standing at the wine bar, the site chosen by Mr. Bishop for our interview, I was struck by both the history and charm of my surroundings. Our discussion was intermittently interrupted by customers in search of assistance, and I was impressed by the grace and good nature with which Mr. Bishop responded. This is a man who keeps his finger on the pulse of his business. At one point in our conversation, a woman carrying a couple of well-worn books approached us. She had discovered a dozen scrapbooks at a local tag sale that contained newspaper clippings of the Bishop family. She offered to temporarily leave all of the books with Keith for his enjoyment. Keith took a moment to browse through one of the books. He paused at a picture of his father taken after he won a national junior vegetable grower contest. The history here was indeed palpable.
Although steeped in history, Bishop’s winemaking business is still in its infancy, having only begun a few years ago. In 2005, with no prior experience in winemaking, Keith attempted his first fruit wine trial, creating 250 galloons of apple-pear wine in one shot. “It came out well,” he said, smiling. He hired Wayne Stitzer as a consultant on an as needed basis to help out. The bar I was leaning on was constructed only four years later, in 2009, after Keith visited 25 wineries on Long Island in one day to research wine bars before putting in his own. The bar top showcases removable tiles, many with photographs taken by Keith himself.
100 percent of the fruit used to make Bishop’s wines is grown on their farm. I wanted to know how the process of making wines from these fruits differs from conventional winemaking. Grapes are usually crushed or pressed to begin fermentation. I was trying to envision crushing fruits such as peaches that have large pits and wondered how that would work. Apparently, I was not wrong to wonder. When Bishop’s first started making wine with peaches, every peach was pitted by hand. I was sure this incredible expenditure of time and labor had since been abandoned for a more modern process. Apparently, faced with the same dilemma as Keith of how to prepare the peaches for fermentation, the people at Holmberg Orchards and Winery designed and built a pitting machine based on a machine from Massachusetts. They loaned the machine to Keith, who made some modifications to it. Problem solved. Once the pit is separated from the other parts of the peach, those parts are sent through a cider press.
Other than specific procedures implemented for getting fruit into a crushable state, the rest of the winemaking process is similar to that for grape wine. The same cultured yeasts used to initiate fermentation in grapes are used for the other fruits, and are similarly chosen based on the aroma, flavor and alcohol content desired in the end product. Most of the wines are fermented dry, with natural fruit or sugar added back in to provide the correct balance. Sulfites are used for preservation purposes, which Keith limits to 30-40 ppm. As with so many of the Connecticut wineries, none of the fruit crops are grown organically. While growing organically is certainly possible, to do so would require an enormous gamble on the part of the winemaker, whose entire crop could fail or be severely damaged by adverse weather conditions. With the recent introduction of the seventh generation into the family business this year, the Bishops are sensitive to the importance of keeping the farm viable and enhancing its value for future generations. An active Integrated Pest Management program is one way they are maintaining better soil health. An outside company comes in once a week from April through harvest to scout for insect populations and a trapping program is utilized in place of insecticides.
So why doesn’t Bishop’s Orchards make wine with grapes? It’s a matter of economics. Their land is devoted to other fruit crops, and these crops are considered high value, taking four to six years to get into production. There is no other land available on which to plant grapes, and there is also no expertise in grape winemaking. But if you are at Bishop’s and simply must have some grape wine, you do not have to leave empty-handed. Knowing that fruit wines might not be every customer’s cup of tea, Keith stocks wine from several other Connecticut wineries alongside his own wines. He is one of only two Connecticut wineries offering the wines of his fellow winemakers, the other being Holmberg Orchards and Winery. To Keith, this is just good business. While I was there, I watched as Keith spoke enthusiastically about wines from Jones Winery and Hopkins Vineyard to a couple of shoppers who wanted to bring a local wine to their son. Wines from Jonathan Edwards Winery and Chamard Vineyards are also carried at Bishop’s. And, because this is a farm winery, these wines can be picked up on Sundays, in addition to the other days of the week.
A few weeks prior to meeting with Keith, I stopped in to do a wine tasting and to procure my first Connecticut Wine Trail passport stamp. My personal preference is for very dry wines, cotton-balls-in-your-mouth dry wines, so I was working overtime to keep an open mind going into this fruit wine tasting. What hit my taste buds both surprised and delighted me. Not one of the wines I sipped was overly sweet, and I especially enjoyed all of the wines that were based on Bishop’s apple cider, a product for which they are heralded. They were well balanced between acid and sweetness. More complete tasting notes appear at the end of this article. I asked Keith which is his favorite Bishop’s Orchards wine. “Amazing Grace,” he quickly settled on. He had two reasons for this choice. A blend of apple and cranberry, Amazing Grace provided him with his first gold medal, and the wine was named after his first granddaughter. A picture of her handprint appears on the label. And what about non-Bishop’s wines? Keith professed to not being much of a wine drinker, but he does enjoy pinot gris. Before I could ask if he preferred those from Alsace or Italy, he said, “Jones makes a really good one.”
This kind of support of his fellow winemakers is not mere lip service. Keith is a strong advocate of Connecticut farm wineries. On June 8th, the House passed Connecticut Bill SB 462 An Act Authorizing The Sale Of Connecticut Wine At Farmers’ Markets And Establishing A Farmers’ Market Wine Permit. Although passage of this bill was a cause taken up by the Connecticut Vineyard and Winery Association on behalf of all Connecticut farm wineries, many people may be unaware that Mr. Bishop was an early activist in this fight, making the initial push four years ago by contacting legislators, working closely with a Connecticut state senator to get the bill through the environmental committee, and suggesting bill language. Although the bill is still awaiting the governor’s signature, once signed into law, Connecticut farm wineries will have the right to sell their wines at local farmer’s markets, alongside cheese, honey, vegetables and other locally grown and produced products. There is a hitch, though. Local ordinances governing the sale of alcohol will supersede a winery’s right to sell at a market. For instance, if a town has an ordinance prohibiting the sale of alcohol within 50 feet of a school, and the town green on which the farmer’s market is set up is within 50 feet of a school, the sale of wine will not be allowed there. Nevertheless, this is a big achievement for Connecticut farm wineries that, thus far, have been strictly limited in their off-site sales opportunities.
So what’s next for Keith Bishop? In keeping with a growing trend among farm wineries, he is working to put together farm dinners in conjunction with La Cuisine of Branford. The dinners will be prepared using as much local product as possible, and the meals will be paired with Bishop’s wines, as well as other Connecticut wines sold at their market. Bishop’s 5th Annual Shoreline Festival will also be taking place soon, with an anticipated 12 Connecticut wineries participating. I left Bishops feeling as though I had gotten to know a family, not just a business. Was I prepared to replace all of my grape wines with fruit wines? Perhaps not, but I did leave Bishop’s Orchards with a little piece of history – Grace’s small handprint peeking out at me from the brown paper bag holding my latest wine purchase, Amazing Grace.
Wines to Uncork
Amazing Grace – Crisp, acidic blend of apple and cranberry tastes brightly of apples and ends with a warm berry finish.
Celebration – Pleasantly off-dry apple wine with cider aroma on the nose and hints of spice on the finish.
Hard Cider Semi-Dry – Warm apple-pear nose. A delightful effervescence hits the tongue immediately. Clean, crisp, light cider taste. Semi-sweet version also available.
Honey Peach Melba – Delightful, acidic, well-balanced fruit wine slightly sweetened with Connecticut honey. Lovely floral bouquet with honey low notes.
Strawberry Delight – Intoxicating fresh ripe strawberry aroma. The flavor just bursts with strawberries. Slightly tart finish. This wine is somewhat brandy-like.